Study: American Women Aren’t Sure What Overweight Looks Like

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Calling Dr. Obvious! American women are confused about what a healthy body is supposed to look like. On one hand, media images continue to glamorize extreme thinness, but on the other, a survey of the general population suggests that overweight is in. Who’s fat and who’s not? What is normal?

In a study of 2,200 low-income women who were surveyed at Texas reproductive health clinics, researchers found some pretty widespread confusion: 23% of overweight women saw themselves as normal, while 16% of normal-weighted women thought they were too fat. (More on Study: Many Obese People Think They Look Great the Way They Are)

The results, published in the December issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, added to the evidence that body-image distortion tends to favor larger sizes. With overweight and obesity rampant in the U.S. — among friends, coworkers and even more and more celebrities — our conception of what’s normal is changing.

“If you go somewhere, you see all the overweight people that think they are normal even though they’re overweight,” lead researcher Mahbubur Rahman, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Women’s Health, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMBG), told HealthDay, which reported:

Race seemed to play a role in self-perceived weight. Among overweight women, 28 percent of blacks and about 25 percent of Hispanics considered their weight within the normal range, compared to 15 percent of overweight white women. The trend was the opposite among normal-weight women, with more whites (16 percent) believing they were fat, compared to just 7 percent of blacks.

Mistaken notions of one’s weight status can have implications for behavior, and perhaps health, the researchers noted. For example, women who were overweight but thought they were normal size were less likely to try to lose any excess weight by dieting or other means. On the other hand, women who saw themselves as fatter than they were, were more likely to use diet pills or diuretics, to induce vomiting or to smoke cigarettes, often as ways to control or lessen their weight.

So although some might argue that such research could damage the self-esteem of those who are heavy, the issue may have larger public-health implications. Obesity increases the risk for a host of health problems, from diabetes to heart disease to arthritis. Without acknowledging the problem, overweight individuals can’t address it.

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